Olga Vlasova delves into Moscow's recent unconventional mayoral elections. She finds the campaigns were completely lacking in public debate, and that the result was a foregone conclusion. A stark departure from tradition, these elections may well have set the tone for next year's presidential race
The 2024 Russian presidential elections have attracted significant attention, particularly in light of the Ukraine conflict. Vladimir Putin hopes to secure re-election with over 90% of the votes, as his press secretary Dmitry Peskov recently confirmed.
Peskov has also labelled democratic processes themselves a 'costly bureaucracy', hinting that Russia may choose to jettison such processes altogether. The Moscow mayoral elections from 8–10 September proved a test of this novel election strategy.
Putin's press secretary has dismissed conventional democratic processes as 'costly bureaucracy', suggesting the Kremlin may abandon them entirely
Moscow's 2023 mayoral campaign stands out as one of the most lacklustre and uneventful electoral endeavours in recent Russian history. Lacking in substance and in competition, the campaign was far from traditional.
Even prior to the campaign, Speaker of the Moscow City Parliament Alexey Shaposhnikov publicly acknowledged that, given the absence of viable challengers to incumbent Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, the elections would be far from competitive.
Sobyanin's nominal competitors included Dmitry Gusev from Just Russia, Vladislav Davankov representing New People, Leonid Zyuganov of the Communist Party, and LDPR's Boris Chernyshov. However, none of these candidates actively pursued the mayoral position – and this strengthened yet further Sobyanin's belief in his inevitable victory.
His confidence translated into a campaign strategy that – bizarrely – steered clear of any actual politics.
Sobyanin's personal blogsite, his primary online platform, features only three posts related to the 2023 elections. These covered his nomination, an appeal for the use of e-voting, and an expression of gratitude to Moscow's citizens for their support:
11 September 2023
Thank you, Muscovites. Victory will be ours.
Preliminary voting results for the Moscow mayoral elections have been announced. Thank you, my dear ones, for your support.
Throughout the 2023 campaign, Mayor Sobyanin's website and Telegram channel focused primarily on updates about the city authorities' ongoing work. There was little in the way of electoral or promotional activity.
Sobyanin's 2018 mayoral campaign, in stark contrast, featured a wide range of political and promotional content, meticulously documented on his campaign website.
Nor were there any pre-election videos television or online audiences featuring the incumbent Mayor.
Sergey Sobyanin and his principal challenger Leonid Zyuganov were notably absent from pre-election debates. While other mayoral contenders did initially attend, participation dwindled. By the end of August, only one LDPR representative remained.
My survey of Moscow billboards during July and August 2023 revealed only 20 posters promoting the incumbent mayor as a candidate. This stands in stark contrast with the 2018 campaign, during which the number of billboards exceeded 1,000.
My 2023 survey found only 20 billboards promoting the incumbent candidate. In 2018, by contrast, the number exceeded 1,000
Among the registered mayoral candidates, only Leonid Zyuganov and Vladislav Davankov shared details of their personal meetings with prospective voters. In contrast, other contenders, including the incumbent Sobyanin, made no mention of face-to-face meetings.
The Kremlin banned mass events such as pickets and rallies, which had been common in prior election campaigns. It cited the ongoing Covid-19 threat as reason for these restrictions, despite the World Health Organization having declared the pandemic's end on 5 May.
In the absence of traditional components of a public election campaign, Sergey Sobyanin pursued an unconventional strategy. He urged Muscovites to base their votes on real accomplishments rather than on pre-election rhetoric and promises.
The 80-page document Moscow: Results and Development Plans Until 2030 served as Sobyanin's primary – indeed, almost exclusive – campaign material.
The election results were as follows:
Dmitry Gusev 3.93%
Vladislav Davankov 5.34%
Leonid Zyuganov 8.11%
Sergey Sobyanin 76.39%
Boris Chernyshov 5.61%
|1. Number of voters on the list||7,700,590|
|2. Number of ballot papers received by the precinct electoral commission||5,409,513|
|3. Number of ballots issued inside the polling station||3,208,780|
|4. Number of ballots issued outside the polling station||116,340|
|5. Number of invalidated ballots||2,084,440|
|6. Number of ballot papers contained in portable ballot boxes||116,132|
|7. Number of ballot papers contained in stationary ballot boxes||3,155,525|
|8. Number of invalid ballots||20,070|
|9. Number of valid ballots||3,251,587|
|9a. Number of lost ballots||15|
|9b. Number of ballots not accounted for upon receipt||62|
|10. Gusev Dmitry Gennadievich||128,701|
|11. Davankov Vladislav Andreevich||174,869|
|12. Zyuganov Leonid Andreevich||265,374|
|13. Sobyanin Sergey Semenovich||2,499,114|
|14. Chernyshov Boris Aleksandrovich||183,529|
These results are noteworthy for several reasons. Sobyanin's unwavering confidence in his victory stemmed from the unique circumstances of the election process. The introduction of online voting exerted immense pressure on voters. Turnout at e-voting stations during working hours was remarkably high, suggesting that coercion was involved.
Turnout at e-voting stations during working hours was remarkably high, suggesting that coercion was involved
Moreover, people who turned up at polling stations to vote by ballot were then directed toward electronic voting kiosks. If the person still did not want to vote electronically, they were, with reluctance, given a paper ballot, produced from a secure location. Indeed, Moscow resident Alla Laitaruk was fined 500 rubles for refusing to vote electronically, and demanding a paper ballot.
Public sector workers reported many instances of coercion towards e-voting. These included alleged pressure on doctors at Moscow State Clinical Hospital No.67 and on employees of Gazprom Energy. As a result, over 80% of votes were cast using the e-voting system.
|1. Number of voters on the list||2,714,147|
|2. Number of ballot papers received by the precinct electoral commission||2,714,147|
|3. Number of ballots issued inside the polling station||2,714,147|
|4. Number of ballots issued outside the polling station||0|
|5. Number of invalidated ballots||0|
|6. Number of ballot papers contained in portable ballot boxes||0|
|7. Number of ballot papers contained in stationary ballot boxes||2,665,767|
|8. Number of invalid ballots||12|
|9. Number of valid ballots||2,665,755|
|9a. Number of lost ballots||0|
|9b. Number of ballots not accounted for upon receipt||0|
|10. Gusev Dmitry Gennadievich||103,762|
|11. Davankov Vladislav Andreevich||136,573|
|12. Zyuganov Leonid Andreevich||212,153|
|13. Sobyanin Sergey Semenovich||2,053,954|
|14. Chernyshov Boris Aleksandrovich||159,313|
Russian elections have long featured elements of falsification, and these elections were no different. Restrictions on the rights of observers and journalists, however, rendered any fraudulent activity challenging to detect. Observers documented instances of ballot-stuffing in the Sokolinaya Gora area at polling station №1246. And polling stations №268 and №2972 failed to seal the ballot boxes. This risked the insertion or removal of ballot papers; a significant violation of electoral protocol.
Numerous signs already indicate that President Putin's campaign may unfold along the same lines as the Moscow mayoral elections.
Peskov has already claimed that if Putin runs for office, no one will be able to compete with him. The Kremlin appears resolute in maintaining bans on pickets and on in-person meetings with voters. As in the Moscow mayoral race, debates will be scheduled at the most inconvenient times, making it unappealing even for nominal candidates to participate. Almost all key regions will use the e-voting system, which is not subject to external moderation. Finally, a proposed law restricting campaign material distribution hints at the end of traditional newspapers, brochures, and leaflets.
All this suggests that public politics as we know it may soon be a thing of the past in Russia.